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Baseball by the Numbers: Law of order

Michael Salfino
Yahoo Sports

You can find more from Michael Salfino at Comcast SportsNet Chicago

We’re a few days away from getting our first lineups of the year. While the impact on where you slot your hitters is much more marginal than we imagine for the real-life team, it does have a more significant impact on each individual’s statistics.

So where a player is likely to hit is, like park effects last week, merely a head or tail wind. It’s not something that will radically impact player value in most cases, but it matters on the margins. And, let’s face it, it’s on the margins where most fantasy leagues are won or lost.

Veteran stat maven Cyril Morong has determined through extensive analysis that on-base percentage is three times more important than slugging percentage for a leadoff hitter while slugging is almost equally important to on-base percentage to a No. 4 hitter. Overall, on-base percentage is about 53 percent more valuable than slugging percentage. Note that the OPS stat that we all now use assigns on-base and slugging percentage equal value.

To illustrate, let’s use perhaps the most extreme example of a high on-base, low slugging guy – the Mets Luis Castillo(notes). Last year, his OPS was .732 (.387 on-base plus .346 slugging). But he was more valuable than this suggests because, relative to an average leadoff man, Castillo would be expected to score 19 more runs over 162 games. Castillo probably won’t bat leadoff (though Jose Reyes is reportedly being considered again for the No. 3 spot) and definitely won’t play 162 games, but you get the idea. For the record, that 19-run advantage has an expected value of about two wins.

It’s not as obvious to managers as it is to us who should bat in the middle of the lineup. The Twins batted backup catcher Mike Redmond(notes) third only because their catcher (normally Joe Mauer(notes)) batted third.

It’s obvious that we want our run producers, not our Mike Redmonds, to bat in the middle of the lineup – and the higher the better. Every spot in the lineup that you’re dropped costs you about 16 plate appearances over a full season. So if your expected leadoff hitter gets knocked down to the No. 9 spot in the Opening Day lineup, subtract a whopping 144 less plate appearances from those projections.

Speed guys need to hit at the top, but there appears to be a big difference between batting first and batting second. Leadoff batters stole 800 bases last year at a 73.7 percent rate. But No. 2 hitters stole just 477 at a 74.5 percent rate. It seems reasonable looking at those success rates that No. 2 hitters can steal as effectively as leadoff guys, yet they run 40 percent less frequently – presumably because they’re closer to the middle of the lineup.

While No. 2 hitters do get on base slightly less frequently (.337 average OBP vs. .347 for the average leadoff guy) and slug slightly higher, this explains just a small fraction of that stolen base gap.

Now let’s look at players who are in new lineup spots and determine whether it will add or subtract from their expected value.

Will Get Better

Victor Martinez(notes), C, Red Sox: Hits third again, but all year this time in Boston. Additionally, there’s a good chance he will DH when a lefty is opposing (unless David Ortiz(notes) really turns things around). Barring injury, he’ll get 550 at bats at a minimum with the counting stats to match in a good Red Sox lineup.

Nick Johnson(notes), DH, Yankees: He’s batting second, which will help him pile up at bats as long as he manages to stay healthy. Never a homer hitter, Johnson will have every advantage this year to at least maximize his potential in that key category.

Orlando Hudson(notes), 2B, Twins: You want him right ahead of Joe Mauer, as Hudson doesn’t run anyway. His runs scored will get a big boost from Justin Morneau(notes), too.

Carlos Gonzalez(notes), OF, Rockies: Looks set to start the year as leadoff hitter and we should trade more steals and runs for less RBI every time.

No Change

Curtis Granderson(notes), OF, Yankees: He’s batted leadoff in the past but now will hit sixth or seventh. You can’t subtract 90-to-106 plate appearances, because the Yankees will rotate their lineup more often than the Tigers ever did. Better there than second for his running, as the Yanks No. 2 hitter last year, Johnny Damon(notes), attempted only 12 steals.

Howie Kendrick(notes), 2B, Angels: Career OBP of .234 as a No. 2 hitter, so I can’t bet on him sticking as a table setter.

Carl Crawford(notes), OF, Rays: Looks like he’s the exception to the "guys who bat No. 2 don’t run enough" rule. All 59 steals last year came from that spot.

Will Do Worse

Alexei Ramirez(notes), SS, White Sox: Looks like he’s batting ninth after hitting second most of ’09. It’s really hard to pay that kind of market price for a No. 9 hitter on a team that may struggle to score.

Chone Figgins(notes), 3B, Mariners: 14.2 plate appearances per steal batting leadoff vs. one every 18.3 batting second, where he will hit in Seattle. That’s going to cost 10 bags if it holds.

Michael Salfino's work has appeared in USA Today's Sports Weekly, RotoWire, dozens of newspapers nationwide and most recently throughout Comcast SportsNet, including, for which he also analyzes the Mets and Yankees. He's been writing "Baseball by the Numbers" weekly since 2005.

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